Computers Cannot Read, Write or Grade Papers

Shakespeare once famously said that the first thing we should do is kill all the lawyers. Perhaps, computer programmers and electrical engineers should be next on the list.

A recent article on The New York Times' website indicated that EdX, a nonprofit educational organization founded by Harvard and MIT, has come up with a computer program that will replace teachers in grading essays written by students. This ill-conceived idea, touted by two of the nation's most prestigious centers of higher learning, would have us reduce writing, an art form, into a science.

What the computer programmers and electrical engineers don't seem to realize is that not everything can be quantified, least of all art or writing.

Some years ago, I reviewed a book on creativity, The Nature of Creative Development. The author of the book, Jonathan Feinstein, a professor at the Yale School of Management, is an economist with a Ph.D. from MIT, as it turns out. But he wisely chose not to come up with a quantitative model for assessing the artistic style of Faulkner, Mondrian and others whose work he discussed in the book.

And yet now some colleges may decide to use an artificial intelligence software to critique the writing of their students. According to the Times article, Harvard, MIT and University of California, Berkeley, already offer free online courses in association with EdX.

One might ask what would prompt such a harebrained concept. Apparently, the software engineers, led by Anant Agarwal, president of EdX, believe that "instant feedback," which the program provides, is superior to the delays students often face in receiving comments as well as grades from teachers, actual human beings, who might wait a few days or even a week in handing back essays.

John Markoff, the New York Times reporter who wrote the story, pointed out that not all educators are supporting this new software. A group, not so artfully dubbed, Professionals Against Machine Scoring Of Student Essays In High-Stakes Assessment, opposes the artificial intelligence system in the grading of essays. The group, which according to the Times' piece, includes MIT's own Noam Chomsky and Les Perelman, noted in a statement that "Computers cannot 'read.' They cannot measure the essentials of effective written communication: accuracy, reasoning, adequacy of evidence, good sense, ethical stance, convincing argument, meaningful organization, clarity, and veracity, among others."

The group might have also cited creativity, imagination and aesthetic sense as critical aspects of writing. As I mentioned at the outset, writing is an art form, not a science. Just as one cannot quantify a human being, one cannot quantify a piece of writing. Communication, in its highest literary form and in all its idiosyncratic variety, is what makes us uniquely human, what separates us from beasts, and what enriches us with wisdom.

I can imagine Shakespeare laughing at all of us today, as we enslave ourselves to technology.

When will this all stop? When will we take a moment and realize that originality, which resides in every human being, cannot be measured on a scale of 1 to 100?

There are subtleties here that we all seem to be missing as we live in our fast-paced, 24/7, technology and data-driven world. As Hamlet once said, "There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy."

Sadly, too many of us think we can quantify everything, but you cannot reduce Shakespeare or Hamlet to a number, and you cannot determine the merits of a student's essay by a computer-programming system either. That kind of intelligence is artificial, indeed.